Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed - Theatrical Review


Release Date: June 8, 2012

Every so often a film comes along that helps put things back into perspective. A film that reminds you what makes a movie great isn't about its budget, special effects, 128 speaker sound systems or super heroes flying all over the place. Safety Not Guaranteed is just such a film.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 10:25 pm June 28, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 25 min
Studio: Film District

Loves: Small movies with big ideas
Likes: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass
Neutral: Jake M. Johnson
Hates: Nothing
Is time travel real?: According to Stephen Hawking, not the way you have been raised to believe

Safety Not Guaranteed (SNG from this point) is a welcome distraction amidst a slew of summer blockbusters all vying for your attention and hard earned dollars. It is very easy to forget that the reason we all go to the movies is to see a well told story with characters that are rich with complexities and have personality to spare. It isn't about the spectacle or epic battles that so many other films seem to be preoccupied with (although those have their place and are amazing in their own right), it always comes back down to character for me. First time feature film director Colin Tevorrow knows this and has put together a shining example of this philosophy. If a movie doesn't have that most basic of story requirements, which are well written and realized characters, then it is most often dead in the water. While SNG may not have the deepest story or huge ambitions of other character centric films, it's charming cast, unique premise and witty script helps it stand out as one of the better films I have seen this year.

When Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a young and somewhat troubled woman working as an intern for the local newspaper, is brought on by one of her superiors, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), to help with a story involving a classified ad from a man named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) who is requesting a partner to travel through time with. Instantly believing that Kenneth is off his rocker, Darius, Jeff and the other tag-along intern Arnau (Karan Soni) travel to Kenneth's hometown to track him down and figure out whether or not he truly is insane or if there might actually be some truth to his boasts about time travel.

Darius confronts Kenneth about his time travel plans.

This is a high concept film that coasts on the skills of its strong cast and a similarly strong script. That isn't to say it's concept is flawed, but more to the point of how impressive its cast and script are in comparison. I know that most of its advertising has been pushing the whole time travel aspect pretty hard but the core of what makes it all work are the characters (and actors) themselves, more so than your average high concept flick. Every single character here is fractured, hurt or distraught in some way. But they also share a similar trait in how they hide their pain deep beneath this hardened exterior. How they all eventually come to grips with whatever it is that ails them is the backbone to SNG and what makes its somewhat silly premise seem semi-plausible and engaging.

The cast is absolute perfection from its stars to all its smaller roles with the main attraction being an out-of-her-element Aubrey Plaza leading the charge. Usually the bleak loner girl who hates the world, she takes the role of Darius and uses those well worn personality traits of hers to great advantage. I have liked Plaza for some time now, between her role on Parks and Recreation and some of her much smaller bits in films such as Scott Pilgrim and Mystery Team, she always stood out from the crowd. Here she finally gets to break free of the confines of being type casted in the same role over and over again. She nails that self-loathing leave-me-alone shtick to perfection but I was getting a little worried that the charm would eventually wear off and become annoying (see Zooey Deschanel on New Girl). But thankfully Plaza is allowed to show much more depth to this admittedly very cliche character type and spread her wings so that she can create an actual human being with real emotional weight behind her problems. I can't help but believe her performance in SNG is a launching pad into greater things for the young actor.

Jeff takes his interns on a stakeout.

There were too other surprises for me though, one from an actor I was not familiar with and the other from an actor whom I misjudged their talents due to my experiences with them on a popular sitcom. Let me talk about Mark Duplass first, I knew his name from a number of independent films but not as an actor, mainly as a writer/director (he was responsible for the very likable and quaint Jeff, Who Lives at Home from earlier this year). When he first shows up as Kenneth I was kind of blown away by him, he is mysterious, slightly off putting, sort of pathetic but also very endearing. The longer the film went the more I started to feel for the guy. He does an amazing job at disarming the audience of any sort of expectations they have for his character, just like Darius you aren't really sure if he is sincere, crazy or just plain naive. It is a marvelously complex performance that will keep audiences guessing all the way up until the end but never once doubting his noble intentions along the way. He is without a doubt the true star and the real emotional weight to the film.

The other actor I was quite literally shocked by was Jake M. Johnson, here is a guy who has done nothing but annoy me ever since I first saw him on New Girl (yep, a lot of New Girl hate). For the longest time that show had infuriated me because it took the once adorably quirky Zooey Deschanel and somehow made her annoyingly daft. But I gave her a pass because I knew for a fact that it wasn't her fault, it was the shows fault. I never gave any other cast members the same out though, I thought they were all painfully unfunny and not talented in the least. Well, SNG has taught me that perhaps I was a little too harsh on the cast of that show in general because Johnson turns in a rather poignant performance about this man who is in search of something and when he finds it, he doesn't know what to do with it. His story is secondary to the time travel bit, but it was equally as touching (if not more so) than the main story and somewhat saddening. But what sold his story was Johnson's surprisingly touching performance.

According to Kenneth there are spies lurking around every corner trying to stop him.

The premise itself is quite interesting as well and the way the film takes this simple idea of an ordinary man who says he can travel through time and layers it with all sorts of complexities that never overshadow all the great character work going on was quite honestly astonishing. You will be hard pressed to guess where it is going from one moment to the next. One moment Darius and Kenneth will be sitting on a rock opening each others soul to the other about why it is they intend on traveling through time and the next they are raiding a local laboratory for "crucial components" needed to make the time machine work. Those shifts keep the audience on their toes and also help drives home the very odd but strangely perfect relationship that begins to brew between Darius and Kenneth.

There are also great bits of comedy sprinkled throughout that can't be minimized either. The aforementioned raid on the laboratory is just ridiculous, from how Kenneth has absolutely no idea as to what he is doing to the absolutely bizarre reaction he gets when he gets spotted. The training montage was just all kinds of silly, but Kenneth's belief in what they are preparing for and his earnestness towards Darius getting properly trained as well were all fantastically fun for all the right reasons. The comedy does start to drop off to the wayside near the end when things start to take a more serious turn but the dramatic places it goes and the resulting payoff is well worth sacrificing a few of the laughs.

This is what SNG is truly about, two people finding a connection.

Had this been a big budget Hollywood flick with named stars in the roles I don't think it would have retained nearly as much personality as it does now. SNG is proof positive that sometimes good things can come in small packages and sneak up on you when you least expect it. Going into this summer season I was expecting explosions, gun fights, aliens and all other sorts of craziness but it is movies like this that are just so darn well intentioned and good natured that it is almost impossible not to get caught up in its deceivingly quaint story about two people who will do anything to travel back in time to right a wrong and put things back they were always meant to be. It is an adorable and somewhat geeky film that is much more than just the sum of its parts that will win over even the most jaded soul with its sincerity and humor. This is one of the best time travel stories I have ever seen as well as a movie that has a lot of heart and some truly moving moments to back up its ridiculous story. Your safety may not be guaranteed, but you enjoyment of this wonderful bundle of joy certainly is. I suggest that you...




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